Restoration Cleaning and Specialty Contents Processing

March 11, 2004
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In the course of any restoration business, dilemmas arise. Calls to respond to jobs that require quick response and specialty contents processing. The situations may include a fire loss at a mansion full of antiques and artwork; a water loss at a medical office with specialty medical and computer equipment that needs to be back in business ASAP; or a faulty library sprinkler system, with thousands of water damaged books.

The world of specialty contents processing is no one-trick pony. The procedures employed to address these situations include cleaning, handling, inventory, pack-outs, storage, deodorization, drying, decontamination, dry cleaning, document processing, art restoration, electronics cleaning and more. The simple mention of "contents processing" and "pack-outs" conjures visions of warehouses stacked to the rafters with furniture and boxes, accompanied by the insured's accusations of missing and broken items for which the restoration company will be writing a check.

It seems overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be.

Taking a total systems approach to contents processing minimizes liabilities and increases profit margins, even with limited resources and personnel. Take a close look at your cleaning division, assess its current skill levels, develop goals and implement procedures to improve and expand your restoration cleaning capabilities.

First, evaluate the continual development of your in-house capabilities. Begin by looking internally at your current situation: What are the strengths and weaknesses of your in-house capabilities? What would you like to accomplish in the next month; the next quarter; the next six months; this year; and 5 years from now? Develop a game plan.

The second area to consider is out-sourcing. Most restoration contractors regularly out-source portions of jobs to reputable specialty service providers. This is a practical way to expand your services.

photo 1

Expanding In-House Capabilities

It is vital to have competent, well-trained supervisors who oversee a team of trained technicians. Due to the nature of the business, new hires often start out with on-the-job training. However, starting them out with basic fire- and water-restoration training will shorten their learning curve and develop a better technician. There may be more than one correct way to do something, but an inexperienced technician can do one thing incorrectly and cause irreversible damage. There are many courses available at training centers around the country.

Your warehouse setup is very important. To get the best productivity, set up an area that is ergonomically designed to minimize fatigue. Having higher workstations and stools minimizes the need to bend over when working. Have cleaning and packing supplies close by and organized.

A properly designed ozone chamber allows for the exhausting of treated air to the outdoors and is sealed to prevent leakage of ozone into the occupied work area. It should be outfitted with wire shelving units that can be loaded at the cleaning station, rolled into the chamber and then rolled to the storage area.

The drying chamber should be outfitted with dehumidifiers and be ventilated to the outdoors. The wire shelving units can be rolled in and out of chamber.

A secure storage area should be divided into spaces for storage of individual jobs to avoid accidentally mixing contents. The design and method you choose may depend upon available square footage and your budget. Ideally, storage vaults that can be stacked with a forklift maximize space and provide security and organization of contents.

The warehouse and all on-site vehicles should be properly stocked with supplies and ready for typical fire and water losses at all times. You should not be purchasing supplies for jobs in a panic. Specialty products and supplies that are not commonly used can be stocked in small quantities or acquired as needed.

The use of specialized equipment will reduce labor costs, improve results and increase profit margins. How do you determine the type of equipment to invest in? Consider the needs of typical jobs. Do you perform pack-outs? Would you like to increase the volume of contents you process? Would you like to pursue commercial jobs? Would you like to offer a wider variety of services, including specialized contents processing? Would you like to process more contents without increasing your personnel?

In typical losses, large amounts of contents - personal, household or business - are damaged. Specialized equipment enables large amounts of contents to be processed efficiently and effectively with consistent results. Two examples of contents processing equipment that can be used on each job are electronics cleaning equipment and ultrasonic equipment. The equipment can be used at your plant and transported to a job site.

photo 2

Electronics Cleaning Equipment

With countless affordable high-tech gadgets available, many households and small businesses contain a wide variety of electronic products. Today's advanced technology, training and electronics-cleaning equipment allows for virtually all contaminated electronics to be safely restored efficiently and cost-effectively. Modified water, with specially developed, electronics-friendly detergents, proves to be the most economical, efficient and user-safe method for cleaning electronics. With the proper equipment, a trained technician can restore almost any electronic device found in a residential or commercial loss (Photos 1 and 2).

Fire- and water-damaged electronics should be considered "high-priority" items. Successful results depend upon the diligence in the initial stages. Two keys to success are:

  • Immediate stabilization of electronics, whether on-site or at your warehouse, to prevent further corrosion and damage. Once stabilized, items can await cleaning.
  • Removal of electronics from the contaminated environment.

    A soot-contaminated 25-inch television can be cleaned to pre-loss condition in just 30 minutes; a computer system, including CPU, monitor, keyboard and mouse, can be cleaned in less than an hour. The items are then placed in a temperature- and humidity-controlled drying chamber. With the proper techniques and products, virtually all remaining odors embedded in the pores of plastics and rubbers in the assemblies or housings of the electronics will be eliminated. The end result will be odor-free, new-looking, fully functioning electronics. The process may save the insurer as much as 75 percent of the replacement costs.

    photo 3

    Ultrasonic Cleaning

    Ultrasonic cleaning allows for thorough cleaning of multiple items in one process. It also cleans intricately designed items which otherwise would be labor intensive and cost prohibitive (Photos 3 and 4).

    Cavitation, the formation and collapse of low-pressure bubbles in liquid by mechanical forces, penetrates deep into areas that are inaccessible to other cleaning methods. Recesses, crevices, passageways, indentations and perforations are normally difficult to access and clean. However, even when cleaning the most intricate and complex parts items, ultrasonics offers consistent and effective results. The method cleans from the inside out, reducing cleaning times and labor costs.

    General contents such as vases, figurines, dishes, cookware, etc. require the least amount of care in handling and watching while the contents are in the ultrasonic tank, and can be processed more effectively and quickly. Items of higher value, or items that have been scheduled on the insurance policy, such as jewelry, crystal, figurines, collectibles and antiques, often require special handling and care. Ultrasonic cleaning allows you to safely process these items with less handling, which minimizes breakage with improved results. Ultrasonic cleaning can also remove rust from metal tools and oxide from silver and brass (Photos 5 and 6).

    photo 4

    Digital Photo Inventory

    Inventory, packing, moving, cleaning and storage can be a daunting process. A photo inventory system is a control system using tracking numbers and inventory tag numbers. Digital cameras assign a numeric file name to each image that is taken. This consistent pattern, along with the inventory numbers, allow for tracking and retrieving contents. The system allows you more control of pack-outs, maximizes care and allows for tracking of contents to minimize loss, misplacement, and false accusations from insureds on supposed value or damage. Pack-outs are methodically inventoried and all contents are photographed. A CD-ROM is presented to the insured and the adjuster, documenting the items inventoried and their condition at the time of packing, along with the handling and routing process.

    A properly implemented photo inventory system eliminates the need to accurately name and describe an item; provides photos to document pre-existing damages; eliminates the need to have a strong command of the local language and handwriting skills; identifies and quantifies many small items in a single photo; and provides clients and adjusters with easily understood inventories

    photo 5

    Outsourcing - Specialty Service Providers

    As you continue to process contents, you will develop relationships with a wide variety of specialty service providers to handle your needs.

    Restoration Dry Cleaners
    This is the single most outsourced portion of restoration contents cleaning, due to the sheer volume of soft goods each household contains. Soft goods include clothing, shoes, purses, bedding, and window treatments. A qualified restoration dry cleaner is able to handle water- and smoke-damaged items that may require special processing, repeated processing, and deodorization. Improper methods will cause irreversible damage.

    Timeliness is important to successfully process damaged soft goods. Many times, the dry cleaner will visit the site the day you call them to pick up damaged items. They will transport them to their plant, inventory, process, and store the items until it is time to return the soft goods to the insured's home. Services may include taking down and re-hanging window treatments. The competent restoration dry cleaner will be able to process high-priority items. Have the insured separate any clothing items needed for the upcoming week; the cleaner should ideally have those items returned the following day.

    photo 6
    Art Conservators
    As part of the initial walk-through with the insured, you may find that there are pieces of artwork, paintings or antiques that have suffered damage. It may appear that the damage is irreversible. Short of charring, however, many items can be successfully restored. It is best to wait for evaluation and proposal of the items by an art conservator before promising full restoration. Use a conservator who is a member of the American Institute of Conservation. They are highly educated in art history and adhere to strict ethical and procedural guidelines.

    One of the most important factors is timely removal of artwork from the contaminated environment. Prolonged exposure to high humidity and soot, improper handling, and incorrect restoration techniques can dramatically reduce the value of a piece. To avoid unnecessary liability, works of art, antiques and items of high value should be assessed and treated only by an art conservator.

    The conservator may visit the loss site, package and transport the items to their secure, climate-controlled facility, or may instruct you in the proper handling, packing and shipping methods for sending it directly to him or her.

    Document Restoration - The Freeze-Drying Method

    Freeze-drying is an effective means of recovering water-damaged books, documents, and collectibles with the least amount of distortion, expansion, sticking and staining. The process of "sublimation" transfers a solid (i.e. ice) to a gaseous state without it first becoming a liquid. Using specialized equipment and procedures, freeze drying removes excessive moisture from documents and other items.

    In order to maximize restoration efforts, water-damaged books and documents should be placed in a freezer as soon as possible. You can be prepared to handle small amounts of documents by having a residential freezer in your warehouse. Arranging for vital documents to be placed in a freezer or cold-storage facility is a high-priority, for they can then remain frozen indefinitely, until arrangements are made for freeze-drying. Immediate freezing of water-damaged items safely stabilizes them, halting the migration of inks and the development of mold. The simple act of freezing increases the odds of satisfactory restoration and allows you time to coordinate other tasks.

    The superior results of freeze-drying are worth the cost, especially when restoring more valuable and sentimental items such as photo albums and family heirlooms. Contaminated items may also be disinfected and deodorized with the freeze-drying method.

    As you can see, there are many ways to expand your current restoration cleaning abilities through specialty contents processing, whether you provide the services in-house or through specialty service providers. Take the time now to develop goals for the coming year.

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